Expedition to the north

Expedition to the north

Alexander SABUROV
director of the Arctic Centre for Strategic Initiatives 

The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, one of the world’s leaders in the field of polar studies, is marking its 100th anniversary in 2020. Without ice charts and forecasts of the Institute, regular shipping via the Northern Sea Route is not feasible. The story started with the establishment of the Northern Scientific and Industrial Expedition in 1920.  

The Northern Expedition (Sevekspeditsiya) was launched the same year when the British Scott Polar Research Institute was established. It became the first Russia’s and World’s research organization, which was specialized in the studies of polar and subpolar areas.  

In the public mind, the research of the Arctic and the North of the 1920-ies remains in the shadow of the 1930-ies with their legendary epics of Chelyuskin’s crew members and “Papanin’s Four”. In the prewar decade, the attention of millions of Soviet citizens was focused on the exploration of the Arctic, and the profession of a polar explorer became one of the most popular in the country. Meanwhile, it was in the difficult twenties that the foundations of the future leadership of our country in the study of the Arctic and Antarctic were laid.


In 1920, Russia still felt feverish: the Civil War was not over, the Soviet-Polish and Soviet-Finnish wars were on, the country’s economy was in a deep crisis, and war communism was the basis of the internal policy of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). A logical question comes up here: why exactly at the time when the country was at a historic turning point, the decision was made not only on sending an expedition to the North, but on the creation of a permanent research organization?

As a matter of fact, there were two main factors. Firstly, the state of the economy and disturbance of transport communication required a search for extra sources of supply. According to the regulation, the main task of the Northern Expedition was to produce “scientific and technical studies of the natural productive forces of the Russian North with a view to their best practical use”. For its justification, the appropriate document of the Special Food Commission of the Northern Front emphasized “the great importance of the northern industries as an inexhaustible source of food for the whole country”.

Secondly, the idea that the North and the Arctic is a special region, which requires a holistic approach to its exploration, was not principally new. The establishment of the Northern Expedition was a logical step to conclude a series of initiatives, launched in previous years, including the pre-revolutionary period. So, after the discovery by the Russian sailors of the Land of Nicholas II (Severnaya Zemlya archipelago), the Polar Commission of the Academy of Sciences was created (in 1915). The direct predecessor of the Sevekspeditsiya was the Commission on the use of natural productive forces of the Russian North, which was operational in 1919-1920 under the Supreme Council of National Economy. The initiator of the creation was geologist Rudolf Samoilovich, who, along with Vladimir Rusanov, secured the first coal deposits in Spitsbergen for Russia back in 1912.

At the same time, the status of the Commission on the use of natural productive forces of the Russian North did not permit the reception of funds and independent conduct of large-scale scientific works.

On February 1920, an inter-agency meeting under the auspices of the Special Food Commission of the Northern Front, which was participated by Rudolf Samoilovich and other scientists, specialized in the North, took a decision on the establishment of a “non-departmental body in charge of all issues of scientific and industrial research in the Northern Territory”. 

 The military command sent an appropriate letter to Vladimir Lenin, after which the Supreme Council of National Economy established the Northern Scientific and Industrial Expedition by its order of 4 March 1920. The appropriate decision of the council’s presidium read, “To give to Samoilovich, Kulik and Kertselli 50 000 000 roubles for the organization of the Northern Scientific and Industrial Expedition”. On May 27, 1920, the first inaugural meeting was held, where Samoilovich was approved as the head of the organization.

The distinctive feature of the work, carried out by the Northern Scientific and Industrial Expedition, was its practical character and employment of specialists in all major areas of expertise. The Khibiny mining and geological party, led by Alexander Fersman, discovered the unique Monchegorsk copper-nickel deposit and the Khibiny apatite deposit on the Kola Peninsula. Oil fields of the Timan-Pechora oil and gas province were explored in the late 1920-ies near Ukhta.  At the same time, deposits of high-calorie coal of the Pechora coal basin were discovered in the proximity to Vorkuta.

Expeditions to the Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya were of special importance, and they were organized practically every year. As a matter of fact, irrespective of numerous scientific expeditions to Novaya Zemlya, by 1920 it was still a terra incognita, i.e. there was no exact map of the archipelago, hydrographic description and navigation directions. Small vessels were not able to solve the problem of expeditions’ delivery to Novaya Zemlya. Its low population density and connection to mainland Russia remained weak points, especially in the years of the Civil War. In mid 1920-ies Rudolf Samoilovich pointed that the study and exploration of Novaya Zemlya “gives us not only interesting scientific results, but also consolidates this remote area as a part of the USSR from the point of view of economy”. 

Today, a hundred years later, we are at a new stage of the exploration and development of the Russian Arctic region

Many sources note that the Soviet Arctic studies of 1920-ies were a success irrespective of bad material conditions and lack of supplies. As Rudolf Samoilovich recalled, the expedition to Novaya Zemlya was carried out “…on a starvation diet, in torn shoes, and nevertheless, scientists with rare selflessness carried out the program…”. The volume of research equipment did not allow the tour participants to take even tents. With this, all the expedition works were to accomplished during the short period of summer and autumn, when the sea was free from ice.


Due to the significant expansion of its activities, by order of the Supreme Council of National Economy, dated of February 20, 1925, the Sevekspeditsiya was transformed into the Research Institute for the Study of the North. In those years, the institute, in addition to traditional expeditions in the north of the European part of the USSR and Novaya Zemlya, organized an expedition and construction of the first polar station “Tikhaya Bay” on the high-latitude Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, marking transition to a large-scale exploration of the Arctic in 1930-ies.

Otto Schmidt, the future head of the Glavsevmorput, was appointed the leader of the expedition. For him it was the first experience of works in the Arctic. The expedition to Franz Josef Land was justified by Otto Yulievich by the need to expand scientific research, in particular meteorological observations, promising economic opportunities of the archipelago, potential of Franz Josef Land for the provision of transarctic flights and confirmation of the USSR’s rights to the archipelago.

The expedition was under a threat of cancellation for many times. For instance, it so happened that 60 barrels of kerosene and gasoline were sent from Leningrad to Astrakhan instead of Arkhangelsk, surgical instruments and stove frames disappeared. Overhaul of the vessel was carried out with delays. The Leningrad Union of Consumer Societies provided poor-quality foodstuffs for the expedition, important antiscurvy products, such as onions, garlic and potatoes, were not delivered.

Fortunately, all these problems were resolved in Arkhangelsk, and as a result of the expedition and construction of the polar station, Franz Josef Land was unconditionally assigned to the USSR. An exemplary polar geophysical observatory was built in Tikhaya Bay, which conducted a wide range of scientific works. It was the most northern observatory at that time.

The beginning of centralization of the Arctic studies in late 1920-ies and further expansion of the Institute resulted in the decision of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, dated of 22 November 1930, to transform the Institute for the Study of the North into the All-Union Arctic Institute, which became the “the central organizing and leading research institution for a comprehensive research of the polar countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”.   


The successes of the Sevekspeditsiya - the Institute for the Study of the North - the All-Union Arctic Institute would not have been possible without its leader Rudolf Samoilovich. He was born in Azov and graduated from the Freiberg Mining Academy. Rudolf Samoilovich began his “polar career” in the village of Pinega, Arkhangelsk Governorate, to where he was exiled for revolutionary campaigning. There he met  Vladimir Rusanov, a famous polar explorer. Together they went to Spitsbergen to fixate Russia’s right to extract coal in the Arctic. Good fortune saved Samoilovich from the sad fate of Rusanov’s missing expedition, and together with another talented geologist Pavel Wittenburg, he participated in the extraction of the first Russian coal on Spitsbergen  in 1913. Rudolf Samoilovich became one of the initiators of the establishment of the Commission on the use of natural productive forces of the Russian North and the Northern Scientific and Industrial Expedition, which he headed in 1920.

Rudolf Samoilovich became a world-famous person due to the leadership of the Soviet expedition on icebreaker “Krasin”, which in 1928 saved the crew of the crashed Umberto Nobile’s airship “Italy”. The successful completion of this voyage raised the standing of the Soviet Union in the international arena considerably. According to numerous sources, it was Samoilovich, who developed the plan of the expedition to Novaya Zemlya with the subsequent creation of a polar station. Until the last years of his life, he combined the leadership of a large scientific organization with research work.

The last Samoilovich’s expedition was the famous high-latitude campaign in 1937–1938 of three icebreakers - “Sadko”, “Sedov” and “Malygin”, which embarked on a forced wintering in the Arctic. Samoilovich was chosen as the head of the wintering of the three vessels unanimously, and he brilliantly proved himself as a leader. But these years, aggravated by the failure of navigation along the Northern Sea Route, had the most tragic effect on the fate of Rudolf Lazarevich. After returning to the mainland, he was arrested on charges of treason and participation in a counter-revolutionary terrorist organization and was executed by shooting on March 4, 1939. Samoilovich’s name was not allowed by censorship for many years, and this ban of public mentioning was lifted only in the 1960-ies. Today, he is rightfully recognized as an outstanding polar researcher and the organizer of science.


Today, a hundred years later, we are at a new stage of the exploration and development of the Russian Arctic region. The North is a unique space where huge reserves of mineral resources are concentrated, which provide for the development of Russia. Successful implementation of already launched and planned industrial and infrastructure projects in the Russian Arctic zone largely depends on the availability of highly qualified cadres, i.e. young scientists, researchers and practitioners, who know the distinctive features of work in these territories.

To carry out this important task, the Northern (Arctic) Federal University named after M.V.Lomonosov has been conducting unique scientific and educational expeditions as part of the “Arctic Floating University” project. Expeditions are held annually in the western sector of the Russian Arctic (White, Barents and Kara seas) on the “Professor Molchanov” research vessel. 

There have been 12 expeditions of the Arctic Floating University in the past 8 years. They involved over 600 people, while more than 260 of them were undergraduate and postgraduate students from Russian and foreign partner universities. The program of expeditions of the Arctic Floating University successfully integrates research and educational components. While on board of the “Professor Molchanov” research vessel under the supervision of experts from the leading research and educational institutions, undergraduate and postgraduate students are learning how to operate research equipment and participating  in scientific projects in the field of oceanology, meteorology, monitoring of pollution of Arctic ecosystems, biodiversity, nature management, etc. 

The scientific research works, carried out on board of the “Professor Molchanov” vessel, have provided unique data for studying the Arctic ecosystem, including the archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Spitsbergen, as well as islands Vaigach and Kolguyev. 

Expedition to the north
Expedition to the north
Expedition to the north
Expedition to the north
Expedition to the north